Fighting Frustration

By Tracy Gates

The ball flies by me, down the wall, again and again and again. And my attempts to dig it out of the back right corner are pitiful. Humiliating. Finally, after my opponent sends me yet another high cross court that hangs high on the right wall beside me, I watch the ball drop into the corner yet again, and I lose it.

“Just what am I supposed to do with that?” I snap, turning to my instructor who’s been watching me and the friend who shares the lesson. He stares at me, then answers as he often does with a question.

“What do you think you should’ve done?”

I stare back. Usually, I’m an easy-going friendly sort who answers questions when asked. But I’m fed up and have lost all patience and sweat is dripping in little circles on the floor around me. My head is filling with a thick frustration that nothing can get through. I’m vaguely aware that if I stopped and calmly thought about it I may have the answer. But I’m feeling petulant, so I say, “I don’t frigging know.” And frigging is not the word I use.

My instructor blinks. I don’t think he cares that I’ve just sworn, but I’m not totally sure. Finally, he says, “It was a good shot. But you should’ve at least tried to hit it. Because if you don’t try to hit the ball, you’ll never get any better. You should always try.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 9.32.32 AMAnd he’s right, of course. I’ve just been letting my brain tell my body what it thinks it can or can’t do. And when I see a lot of tight shots that I think I’m unable to return, my body pretty much gives up. I’m not used to giving it new directions.

I’m also not used to frustration. Even though I discovered squash as a teenager at my local YMCA and have been playing the game for years now, I never got much coaching early on and often played with similarly unschooled players. So I learned lots of bad habits. All on my own. But due to an inherited athleticism, I made do with them pretty well. Until now. Now, years later, I was learning how limiting they could be.

Frustration comes when your brain can’t solve a problem. And since I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly talented at solving problems, I tend to avoid them. However, I really want to get better before—well, before my body and mind go to pot. Hopefully, that day is a long ways off, but you never know. . . .

So now I’m taking lessons and facing something I don’t do enough of, having to think while playing squash. Now I’m listening to my instructor tell me something that I haven’t heard since I was in school. If you don’t try, you fail. And, not to get all philosophical on you here, but suddenly it began to dawn on me. Frustration doesn’t only have to be about failing; it can motivate the other way, towards improving and eventually succeeding. The more you want something, the more frustrating it is when you can’t get it. So wouldn’t it be better to fight harder to get it, rather than give up ‘in frustration’? It started to make sense that it was okay to feel angry about my stupid shots that went all over the place. Good clean ball strikes weren’t going to happen overnight, much less in the course of one lesson. But by accepting that it would be frustrating at first, maybe second and third and fourth, too, then I could focus on taking the shot and doing it well. Not all at once, but little by little. And only if I took the shot. I wasn’t going to solve the problem unless I tried to. And frustration was just part of the game.

I wish I had come to this revelation, to fight frustration instead of submitting to it, a lot earlier in life. I might’ve become a much better squash player, as well as a better problem solver. But learning something at any point in one’s life is a wonderful thing. And in some ways, it’s more valuable and meaningful the more experienced in life one gets.

I’ve been following the story of an athlete with sixty-one years of experience in life, who is having to deal with the ultimate frustration in her sport of long-distance swimming: not being able to complete a long planned swim. It was to be from Cuba to Florida, over one-hundred miles, through shark-friendly waters. My athletic heart is breaking for Diana Nyad who decided to stop twenty-nine hours into her swim when too many factors—including shoulder injury, rough seas, and asthma—shut down her quest on August 9th of this year. Some may say she failed, but for me she succeeded in showing thousands of people how to push through frustration to something they can be proud of, no matter what the outcome. For her it was mind over matter . . . until the matter wouldn’t work any longer.

Thankfully, I don’t have to hit a squash ball for twenty-nine hours in a row. With or without sharks. But if a sixty-one year old woman can train for years and then deal with the frustration of a great goal left undone, then I can put my own matter and mind to work for a few hours a week, in pursuit of a more modest goal. And when I get frustrated, I’m going to think of Ms. Nyad, swimming steadily hour upon hour, still going after an entire day, until she absolutely couldn’t anymore.

Tracy Gates plays squash in New York City and writes about it on her blog: